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Buttner sees ‘opportunity’ in Holden

Planning time: Holden chief Dave Buttner says all General Motors brands are on the table for Holden’s future line-up.

Passion for Holden brand and GM’s commitment to market swayed Buttner decision

Holden logo6 Aug 2018

MAKING the move from running one automotive brand that is intrinsically linked to the Australian automotive landscape to another that is even more connected, and invokes even more passion among its followers, is bold to say the least.
 
But former Toyota Australia president and newly installed chairman and managing director of GM Holden, Dave Buttner, is not scared of a challenge, having faced a number in his 41 years in Australia’s automotive industry.
 
Mr Buttner retired from Toyota on December 31 last year, about three months after overseeing the closure of the company’s manufacturing operations in Altona, Victoria, which preceded the closure of Holden’s local factory just a couple of weeks later.
 
He said he genuinely thought he was retiring and has spent the past seven months enjoying time with his wife Helen and his children and grandchildren.
 
But when the decision was taken for Mark Bernhard to step down from Holden, Mr Buttner said it “afforded me this opportunity”.
 
“I didn’t jump at it lightly and I didn’t jump at it quickly,” he told journalists this week at his first press conference as Holden’s new leader. “And I wanted to understand a bit about this iconic brand that I grew up in a family that was a Holden family.”
 
Mr Buttner said his initial conversations with General Motors prior to accepting the offer gave him confidence that the US auto giant was committed to the Holden brand, and prompted him to sample some of the product already on offer.
 
“When I started speaking to GM International, naturally, one of the first questions on my mind, which I know is on a lot of people’s mind, well, what is the future source of product, what is your commitment to Holden in Australia? And frankly I was buoyed by their responses, to the extent that it made me investigate further,” he said. 
 
“I thought, well, if I am going to go to a brand, I have got to have belief in the product. To stand in front of people like yourselves and say, ‘I have driven the product, it is good product, it is meeting the needs of the marketplace.’
 
“So I did that over a progression of a couple of weeks. I had each car rolled out to the farm, I had a drive, my wife had a drive as I wanted to get her impression as well. I was really impressed in the product. And the work being done by the product engineers here in Australia to tune the ride and handling to suit Australian roads and suit tastes of Australian drivers impressed me.”
 
When asked what he is bringing to Holden, Mr Buttner said he wanted to ensure employees, the dealer network and other stakeholders were working collaboratively, and working on building relationships.
 
“I think in the first instance I want to bring collaboration and I want to bring unity in terms of all of the stakeholders, and everybody inside the company,” he said.
 
“I say that in ignorance of what may be inside now. So my role is not to criticise the past. I wasn’t there facing the circumstances the company faced. I wasn’t there in the boardroom and party to the decisions being made for specific reasons.
 
“So I have no criticism of the past. Every relationship may be tickety-boo right now. But I want to make sure those relationships are solid and we have a clear direction of where we want to go, and most importantly, how we are going to get there.”
 
He also rejected the notion that he was Holden’s ‘Mr Fixit’.
 
“I don’t think I will call myself that,” he said. “I am a person who has great passion for the brand. I have been employed to come in, sell more volume, make sure that all of the stakeholders are engaged in the franchise so we can grow volume and share down the track.”
 
He also used more positive language when asked if he thought leading Holden would be the biggest challenge of his long career.
 
“I have been very fortunate in my career to have had a number of challenges on that journey. I honestly would rather refer to is as an opportunity. In life an opportunity is there, but unless you grab it, you waste it,” he said.  
 
“I think the upside for this franchise is incredibly high. We just need to get all of our ducks in a row, have our strategic directions and get that navigation map clear in everybody’s mind and go forward positively.”
 
Mr Buttner said one of the key questions he had in considering the role was how Holden employees were faring following the factory closure and subsequent staff cuts.
 
“I asked a specific question of HR – what is employee satisfaction like, how are people feeling? Again, I was really buoyed by their positivity to the brand and their very, very strong connection to the brand,” he said.
 
“There is a deep and strong desire to ensure the brand is successful in the Australian marketplace, and lives up to the expectations of the consumer.”
 
Asked by GoAuto if he was considering making more changes to employee numbers or to the recently installed executive team, Mr Buttner said he was comfortable with the current size of the business.
 
“What I am seeing now is that the company, the Holden national sales company, is right sized for what it is doing. And our way to growth is not just cut, cut, cut. Our way to growth is wholesale more cars, increase the revenue,” he said.
 
“I think at the moment we are right, but as we continue to grow, then naturally it is horses for courses. 
 
“And being honest and being empathetic and speaking to people inside the business today, any change like that it does create a level of uncertainty. 
 
“So you have got to make sure people feel confident in the leadership team and they can see a future for the brand and we recognised that any adjustment when you have lost quite a few people – who does what job, how does it work, what is the process – you have got to make sure they are robust and you are doing the things we need to do to be a successful business.”

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